Memoir of a Woman of Pleasure
Region: Europe North America
Subject: Explicit Sexuality
Artist: John Cleland (1709 - 1789)
Confronting Bodies: British government, American government
Dates of Action: 1749, 1750, 1821, 1963, 1966
Location: Great Britain, The United States of America
Description of Artwork: Memoirs of a Woman of Pleasure was written by John Cleland during his imprisonment for debt from 1749-1750. This novel is the most famous erotic novel in English, and was a best seller during Cleland's lifetime. His goal in writing the book was to "write so freely about a woman of the town without resorting to... coarseness."
The Incident: When the first part of Memoirs of a Woman of Pleasure was published in November 1749 in England, government action was immediate. The secretary of state for the Home Department, the duke of Newcastle, issued a warrant for the arrest of the author, the printer, and the publisher. They were all found guilty in court and the novel was withdrawn from circulation. In 1750 Cleland censored his own work and released Memoirs of Fanny Hill, a significantly shortened and more tame version of the original. This edition, too, was censored. The bishop of London sent a letter to the duke of Newcastle demanding that the book be censored. That day Cleland, his printer, and his publisher were again arrested. The prosecution lasted until the end of 1750 but the novel remained in circulation.
The American edition, first published in 1789, was successfully prosecuted for obscenity by the state of Massachusetts in 1821. In 1963 the American publisher Putnam released the original novel and was immediately prosecuted. The case went to the New York Supreme Court, where the novel was cleared, and then on to the United States Supreme Court, where it was also cleared.
In England the British publisher Mayflower released its own edition shortly after the disposition of the American case and was also prosecuted. Mayflower lost the case and released a censored edition. Soon afterward, however, they were able to release the uncensored edition again. In 1965 a film version of the novel was rejected by the British Board of Film Censors, but then released in 1968 with an "x" rating.
Results of Incident: The original text has since been published in 1985 by Oxford University Press and by Penguin. The novel has finally gained respectability.
Source: Censorship: A World Encyclopedia.